How To Deliver A Useful Photo Critique

How To Deliver A Useful Photo Critique


Much has been written on DPS about receiving feedback and examining your own photos to help improve. Today I want to give you some pointers on providing a critique to others (when asked for) so the conversation between you and the photographer is time well spent.

At its base, a critique is an examination of a piece of work, be it writing or art or potato chips, and a reasoned response to what is examined. I’ll be talking mostly about ‘soft’ critiques in this post as they are the ones that examine content in a less mathematical way. Not that math doesn’t apply to photos, but examining a photo is more subjective than objective.

1. Make Sure The Photographer WANTS A Critique

Most importantly, ensure the person receiving the critique actually desires a critique. While your intentions may be pure and the information you have may benefit the recipient, if most people aren’t open to the idea of hearing about their work, they won’t hear a thing you say. And it may backfire. Before launching into, “There are some things about this image I want to comment on…” start out with something as simple as, “Would you like an honest critique of your image?” If the answer is, “No thanks,” then move along and don’t’ say a word. If someone is not open to receiving, they won’t. (I know it sounds obvious, but it is often overlooked.)

2. Be Honest

This is hard for many of us. Some of us are being desensitized to the “Nice work!” we see on Facebook and Google+ and think all the world need be rosy. This is not the case. But (as long as point #1 is followed) we need to make sure we are honest from the start. If you just want to tear someone’s art apart, say so (that is not at the heart of a critique, by the way). If you want to help them improve, say that too. If you just want to spout your opinion, ditto. Hearing yourself talk or trying to gain more exposure on certain sites by ‘joining in on the conversation’ has its place, but just be honest about why you are speaking.

3. Realize Your View Of The World Is Incomplete

Most people jump right over this concept. We all have egos that enjoy thinking they have the accumulated knowledge of the world, or at least some specific subset. But the truth is, no one does and we, as a society, are learning new things about the world around us all the time. So it is with art. Any art revolution was confronted with detractors; people who thought it was rubbish, based solely on person, past experiences. Knowing you don’t know everything will help lead to an open discussion rather than a one sided, “You did all this wrong,” point of view.

4. Educate Yourself

Before getting started, in hand with knowing you don’t know everything, learn a little about the subject being critiqued; both the subject of the photo and the subject of photography. There’s no need to take college level courses to learn some art history and different photographic techniques. Often this education can come from the photographer by asking simple questions about why they shot what they did and what they were attempting to portray (some will tell you to not ask these types of questions as it may alter your critique, but I find it can be helpful in guiding the conversation).

5. Examine And Highlight

Examine the body of work, set it down, walk away, and come back. I have found this process helpful personally to shake my thoughts up and then let them settle. If time is not available, by all means, jump right in. Look to what works and doesn’t work in the image. Look for technical merit (and here our very own Christina Dickson gives some examples of: Exposure, Focus and Composition in her post on portrait critiques) and look to more subjective areas such as story telling and emotional impact. Highlight what works and what doesn’t work. And most importantly; why.

The ‘Why’ is at the heart of the critique. It will help the photographer more than anything. “Her hair is all wrong,” is not a good critique, even though it might be accurate. “Her hair is bothering me. See if you you darken the tone to lessen its impact in the shot, or remove some of the stray strands to cause less distraction,” is a far better statement that gets out the bad with leading the photographer in a direction to improve. And that is at the heart of the critique, wanting to help the other improve. Anything less is simply complaining or touting one’s own mastery of the art, neither of which really help anyone (except the reviewer’s own ego).

6. Delivering The Critique

Lastly, deliver the critique when the photographer is ready and in a way that works for them. Listing a long diatribe as a comment on a Google+ picture might not always be the best forum, especially if the critique was unwanted. But emailing the person privately and first asking them if they wish for an honest critique is a good first step. Follow this up by another email with the critique if they are amiable to receiving. That way they can read it when they are ready, instead of having it crammed down their throat when they are tired and hungry and working a long day. Delivery is just as important sometimes as what is being said.

These days, across the miles, most critiques are given in email and it’s a great medium as people in France can comment on a Vietnamese artist’s work with never leaving home. it also allows a slower conversation which is often preceded with carefully thought out comments, rather than calling someone at 2am, a little drunk, to tell them why their sunrise picture, “sucked”. I’ll pretend this never happened to me. And I hope it never happens to you. Email helps bring a bit of reason into a conversation. It should not be shunned over an actual in-person meeting if location isn’t a problem, as body language can tell you a lot about what a person is thinking.


If you’re looking for specifics to include in that critique, I have enjoyed this post over at Pixiq to be helpful. It dives a bit deeper into the area of what to include and rather than recreate it here, I suggest you pop on over and take a look.

Do you have any tips on the actual delivery of a critique that you find useful?

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Benn March 7, 2012 03:19 pm

    It can be tough to hear that the image is not as good as you thought it was but the idea of the critique is to learn!
    Keeping that in mind the person doing the critique needs to be constructive and understand that it can be hard to hear some times.

  • pete25r March 2, 2012 03:44 am

    Mr. Carey, thank you for this article. I've been administrating a Flickr group entitled Critique. Your write is spot on. There have been a few posters with hurt feelings because they didn't understand the idea behind a critique. I'm sure some hurt feelings were cause because someone didn't understand what the intent behind the photo was. This article can help the Critique-ers get what they want out of a critique.

    Thanks again for the write up.

  • Dave February 25, 2012 07:24 pm

    I always find giving critques very educational --- Specially for myself!!

    Commenting on some one elses pic ( and I'm no photo/art expert) continually reminds me about
    looking out for composition and other attributes in my own work.


  • Rob Bixby February 25, 2012 10:01 am

    One thing that annoys me with some critiques is overstating the obvious. Often, you will see someone asking for comments and stating something like, "It was a quick shot with a 1000 foot canyon to my left so this is be best angle I could get". I guarantee you'll get a "this would have been better if you had waited 30 minutes for the sun to get lower and move about 20 feet to the left" response.

  • adrian February 24, 2012 04:56 pm

    I am very interested in others giving feed-back on my posts. I am more in hunger for learning then being sensitive with my ego. Pls friends, shoot. Polite or direct, "sandwich" critique (nice, harsh, nice) or whatever you like, but don't leave the comment section white....:) Find me on facebook, flickr, or elsehere

  • Steve Gandy February 24, 2012 08:28 am

    My training as a clinical supervisor in the world of education taught me two very important points when it comes to evaluations and they are applicable to image critiques:

    1. Always start with at least one positive or the rest you have to say will be ignored.
    2. Never address more than one negative at a time or nothing will improve.

  • Marcel Borgstijn February 24, 2012 08:08 am

    Great tips, thanks for sharing. Will keep them in mind next time I'll critique a photo

  • GariRae February 24, 2012 07:13 am

    One of things missing from the article is an assessment of the photographer's intent. Is it a graphic photo or a "story" photo? (Some photographers pride themselves in be pure graphic technique.) Was the intent achieved? For many photographers, being asked their intent is truly an epiphany, and can help a photographer improve his/her technical elements, as well as compositional elements. At least it does me!

  • Marco February 24, 2012 04:59 am

    @Jai Catalono -- Boy have you got it wrong. That is exactly the wrong reason to seek a critique. As I said in an earlier post, I often use a special critique site that ONLY DOES CRITIQUES. I don't submit the ones I am satisfied with i.e. my best shots. I submit the ones that I think have potential, but for some reason I cannot get something to stop bothering me about them! Yes they get ripped apart sometimes, but more often than not I get real suggestions on how to improve the image! With this help, I grow as a photographer so the pain of putting it out there is worth it. If you want feel good responses, don't go to a serious critique site ever. I have plenty of self worth! What I need and get from that site is knowledge and growth!

  • Peter February 24, 2012 03:49 am

    Re: Do you have any tips on the actual delivery of a critique that you find useful?

    Just this: Talk about the image, not the creator. Too many very sensitive photographers and other artists are so intrinsically identified with their work that if you criticize the image, they take it personally. I try to separate the work form the person. I don't use words like "you" but rather discuss "it," the image. By separating the image from the creator, it lessens the pain of hearing the criticism.

    Remember that all conflict is a cry for intimacy. Most artists NEVER want to hear criticism. They get their major gratification from hearing how much others delight in their work. It would be more appropriate, perhaps, to take pleasure in creating the work itself, regardless of how it is received by the critics.

  • Paul February 24, 2012 03:46 am

    Thanks, useful advice.......... something I've never had to do, well not that I'm aware of lol

  • Virginia February 24, 2012 02:53 am

    I am keeping this post. Good advice. I recently stopped posting with an online group because the leader was so heavy handed and opinionated. I teach small groups of amateur photographers and we do a group critique each week. I am careful to set the guidelines so that they come eager to share their work and hear what we have to say rather than stark fear that their work will be torn to shreds. I think in the end, it's important to remember that we are the artist. We can invite criticism of our work and we can choose to use it or not. It's all in the eye of the beholder is it not?

    Now I"m off to read the other links you and others here have provided. Thanks again for this post.

  • Mike van Keulen February 22, 2012 10:08 am

    Excellent post - thank you! This applies more widely to our everyday approach to life in general as well :-)

  • ccting February 21, 2012 11:16 am

    :D great post.. ... Why?
    It tells the current challenges... and it tells about how to solve them..
    Problems are good... because there are solutions to be discovered...
    When there are solutions to be discovered, there are improvements...
    When there are improvements... we learn something...
    When we learn something... we are happy!

  • Jai Catalano February 21, 2012 09:46 am

    I am always shocked at what people like vs what another person likes. Sometimes it's as if they are on 2 different planets. Critiques don't mean much unless you are seeking some sense of self worth.

  • Abraham Friedman February 21, 2012 06:56 am

    When I critique a photo, I do it this way.

    1) Start out telling what you like, e.g., "Overall I like the composition". People are more receptive if you give them something positive first.
    2) Tell them what you don't like.
    2a) Critique the work, not the photographer.
    2b) Couch the suggestions in terms of yourself, e.g, "I find the hand distracting because it's so bright. Maybe darkening it a bit would help".
    2c) Don't generalize, e.g, "Everyone follows the rule of thirds".
    3) End on a positive note, e.g., "Even without the changes it's a nice picture".

  • The Guig February 20, 2012 11:23 pm

    I also think two key words here are "Subjective" (based on or influenced by personal feelings or taste) and "Objective" (based on pure facts with complete impartiality) and both you and the recipient should be clear on which view your comments are based on.
    Also agree a lot of this is common sense, but it's good to remember some of these basic disciplines and pointers. A lot of articles I've read here recently have some very ill mannered responses that upset a lot of people, so good call, Darren :0)

  • London wedding photographer February 20, 2012 07:24 pm

    Delivering critique is essential in helping other photographers grow and becoming better photographers. I hate having my done but I have got friends who are togs who give it to me and it really useful!

  • Bharat Justa February 20, 2012 02:33 pm

    @marco sorry for inconvenience. Comment settings have been changed.

  • Joan Rembacz February 20, 2012 10:05 am

    Thank you SO MUCH for writing this! I find that I, as far from a professional photographer, almost cringe whenever I put an image out for review or critique. Not that I don't want the critique, but sometimes the manner in which it is done is not well thought out. I think that the lack of in-person commentary and ability to judge can make it easy for someone to just rip apart the image without much accountability for the consequences. When someone tells me--- "Something about the (and add in whatever, such as LIGHT, exposure, pose, hair) bothers me. I am thinking that if you lightened this, erased that, cropped it this way it would make it a better image". Gives me direction. To tell me to control my XYZ might not make sense to me. Even more, having someone SHOW me and resend it gets the idea out so that I not only understand it, but can respect and clearly understand the sender's thoughts-- and learn from them. When critiquing someone, motivation and message come to the forefront, and that message can be messed up depending on the motivation of the critique-er. Most people really do want to improve, but if they don't understand the message and it is over their heads or short and not very instructional it really doesn't help. Think back and look at other images the person has submitted, and find out by those and their profile how experienced they are. This can give you guidance to how to approach their critique. Thanks again.

  • Marco February 19, 2012 05:06 pm

    @Bharat Justa -- I just tried to comment on one of your blog entries only to find that I could not log in as I don't use any of the accounts you allow. No wonder you don't have any critiques.

  • Marco February 19, 2012 04:56 pm

    I have participated in another site that is specifically designed to give/receive critiques at and seen all of these except the critique when one does not want one. When I give a critique that might involve post production, I download (save as) the image and open it in GIMP and process it as I would noticing what I do at every step. I have seen too many images get ripped apart that can be greatly improved with some post work. I then critique it with detailed information about what I would do to make it a stronger image. An adjustment in 'Levels" is more or less the same no matter what post software you use. Shadow recovery is another area that is often overlooked. Blocked up blacks can make an image look a mess, but the data is often still in there if you just try to bring it back with a filter or through dodging. Often these lead to the poster asking really relevant questions that I try my best to answer. How will they get better if we don't help??? On the other hand, I get a few that are rude as they only wanted positive pats on the back and I just move on as they don't get the idea of a critique and will never learn or get better. They usually leave that site very fast.

  • Bharat Justa February 19, 2012 02:41 pm

    This is a good post! I need an Honest critique too

    A empty comments section does not help in anything.

  • Bharat Justa February 19, 2012 02:40 pm

    This is a good post! I need an Honest critique too

    Empty comments section does not help in anything.

  • David Farrell, Jr. (@TSSPro) February 19, 2012 07:55 am

    I agree- the core of the critique is "why." Without addressing the why question the critical viewer is just expressing an opinion, not helpful.

    I meet for several hours a week with peers and other artists performing in-progress and final critiques for work because of my MFA work.

    (that being said- Disclaimer- I may work as a prof photographer I still have that jaded and slightly sadistic view of art that academia will give warned)

    Giving valid feedback beyond..."I think you should control your highlights better in this image because it is distracting to the eye.." or..."I think you need to revisit this image in post..." is hard. To situate to work within the broader context of art in whatever genre the work is attempting to fit in, be it representational, realist, conceptual, pictoral...whatever, is valuable. This means providing directions for inquiry- "Hey I think that you should look at XYZ's work, too because this really reminds me of..." can be a valuable asset to an artist understanding the reasons why they make work they do and understanding the visual tools that other artists have utilized to make their work successful.

    On the other end of the table- we have the stance of the artist- Understanding the reasons, not just the technical ones, why a piece of work is the way it is. Scale, coloration, form, composition, et all are all things an artist should be familiar with in a particular work they are presenting for critique. So when challenged by a critical viewer they are better able to understand the disconnect between their intentions as an artist, through the use of the specific elements of an image, and the perceptions held by the viewer.

    Another good resource for information of critiquing photographs, and art in general is Criticizing Photographs: An introduction to understanding images by Terry Barrett (4thed.)

  • Erin @ Pixel Tips February 19, 2012 04:26 am

    I definitely think providing (and receiving) critiques that have a positive, helpful outcome takes effort from both parties. The person receiving the critique has to fight the urge to become defensive, and the person giving the critique, as you so wonderfully explained here, has his/her own set of challenges as well. I struggle with critiquing images of friends in particular - sometimes you just don't want to say anything that isn't covered in sugar and honey. :)

  • Rick February 19, 2012 04:21 am

    It also helps to know which kinds of requests to respond to. I usually skip right over the "What do you think of my picture" requests. I'm much more likely to look at requests that say something like, "Does the composition work?" or "I'm not too sure of the tonal range, what do you think?"